Prolific Indian-American novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni proves herself adept with all the tools in the writer’s toolbox. Many fiction writers are specialists. They can only write poetry or fiction or the short story or the novel. Jim Harrison’s best work is in the novella. William Faulkner famously became a novelist after failing as a poet. The skills are not scalable but specific to each genre or form.
In her latest novel, Before We Visit the Goddess, Divakaruni makes use of two major writerly tools that seldom go together — tragic drama, and screwball comedy. What’s more, she finds entirely fresh ways to mete out the tropes of the South Asian immigrant story, tropes that were already old by the time Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club introduced them to a wide audience in 1989.
Divakaruni abandons the useful (but frankly dull) form of the linear autobiographical narrative. She adopts instead a prismatic approach that’s much more fun to read. “Somewhere in the dark jackals are howling,” the novel begins. “They like it when storms bring down the electric lines in the village, leaving only broken bits of moonlight.”
Sabriti, the mother or grandmother of the other principle female characters, has returned to her ancestral village after an eventful life in Kolkata. Now she rises to write a letter to the granddaughter she has never seen, thus putting the narrative into motion.
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Not that Divakaruni weaves her story of complicated relationships by anything so unsubtle as letters sent back and forth. For the first 48 pages we get the story of Sabriti’s move to Kolkata for college; the rich inappropriate boy she falls in love with; the promising young professor she marries; and the sweets shop she opens, where she finds success and independence.
Just when we’ve grown comfortable with Sabriti and are sympathetic to her trials, forgiving of her imperfections, the novel turns into something completely different. The scene shifts to strip-mall America and the granddaughter to whom Sabriti is writing, and the novel suddenly becomes a madcap comedy of a shiftless young woman and the elderly Indian grandmother (not hers) who begins to crack open her shell.
At first Tara and her friends seem frivolous, the American setting too shallow to wet the bottom of your feet. Soon enough, though, Divakaruni’s comic gifts come to the fore, especially after Tara, who clerks in a used furniture store, takes a side job as caretaker for what she thinks is a housebound old Indian woman. When Tara brings Mrs. Mehta to the store for one of her shifts the old woman comes to life. Soon she’s wearing Western clothing, manning a register and undergoing the process of assimilation in about two hours.
As shocking as the shift to comedy is, this chapter magnifies what comes before and what follows. When the story cuts again to India, where Sabitri has died, the lingering air of hilarity deepens and clarifies the story’s dark tones. It informs the chapters that follow, as we learn of the shop manager’s unrequited love for Sabriti. The story of Bela, Sabriti’s seemingly heartless daughter. An odd-couple friendship between a lonely gay man and a shy, older Indian lady. Tara’s reconciliation, step by tiny step, with her Indian heritage.
Before We Visit the Goddess easily could be marketed as a short story collection. And yet Divakaruni generates a novelistic momentum that carries from story to story, chapter to chapter, as she rolls out the tale of Sabriti and her daughters like an heirloom tapestry.
Chauncey Mabe is a writer in Miami.
Meet the author
Who: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
When: 8 p.m. June 22
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave. , Coral Gables
Information: 305-442-4408 or http://www.booksandbooks.com/